Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Rare Birds Are a Matter of Perspective
June 04. 2016
By Steve Grinley
I was once asked what was the rarest bird that I have ever seen? That is a difficult question. First, I would have to qualify the term “rare.” Is it rare in the world? Or is it a more local question?
I would have to say that one of the rarest bird that I have seen is the California condor. I saw this bird, in the wild, back in 1966 at Mount Pinos, California. This was back when this bird was near extinction and there were very few pairs left in the wild. It was before the restoration project began which captured the remaining wild birds and bred them in captivity. Condors have since been released back into the wild in California, Arizona (Grand Canyon), and Florida. A few birds have bred successfully again in the wild, and they are only recently to the point where they are “countable’ again according to the American Birding Association.
My Mount Pinos sighting was during my five week cross country birding trip back when I was a teenager. Most teens traveling in Volkswagon buses in the 1960’s were part of the hippie, flower-power movement. I was a bird nerd. I and my friend Bob went with a woman, her 6 year old daughter and 2 miniature poodles in a Volkswagon bus cross-country to watch birds. It was quite an experience, but a story for another day. The condor was certainly the highlight of that trip, though we did stop in Michigan to see the Kirtland’s warbler, another of the world’s rare birds.
I guess the whooping crane would follow the same line of reasoning. There are less than three hundred whooping cranes in the world and I did see some of them a number of years ago in Port Aransas Texas. A boat trip through the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the summer provided excellent views of these rare birds, including some of that year’s offspring.
On my trip to Thailand in 2010, I was lucky enough to see three spoon-billed sandpipers, one of the most rare birds in the world today. Only a couple of hundred breeding pairs exist today.
If one considers birds that are just rare for North America, I think that my 2008 trip to Alaska produced at least one rarity, a gray-tailed tattler from Asia. I would also classify the bristle-thighed curlew, which only nests in Alaska in small numbers, as rare and I was lucky enough to see that bird as well.
There are also Mexican birds that are rare in the United States, sometimes wandering north over the border. My trips to Southeast Arizona and southern Texas have enabled me to find the gray-crowned yellowthroat, Aztec thrush, and rufous-capped warbler. These are all considered rare for the US.
The western reef heron that showed up in Kittery, Maine in August of 2006 was only the third or fourth North American record for that species. It was a striking bird of deep blue with white on the head. It is normally found in Europe and migrates south to Africa. This bird was definitely way off course and I was lucky enough to see it.
Another European stray, which was not only a first record for Massachusetts but for North America as well, was the red-footed falcon. This bird was found on Martha’s Vineyard by the late Vern Laux in August of 2004. It took me two tries, but I finally was able to get great looks at this bird at it hunted dragonflies and other insects at the Katama Airport. Of course I was just one of hundreds of birders that went to see that bird. Many traveled much further than I, from every corner of the United States, to see that rare bird.
The falcon event reminded me of the fervor caused by the appearance of the Ross’ gull in Newburyport harbor in the winter of 1975. This rare visitor from the arctic drew birders from all over the country and put Newburyport on the “birding map” of great places to find birds. That certainly was one of the rarest birds that I’ve seen in Massachusetts and I only have seen one other in Montreal, Canada a couple of years ago.
Of course, if you want to see rare birds, you can sometimes find a few in Newburyport Harbor. For the past several summers, right by the clam shack on Water Street, there have been four penguins sitting on ice floats. Yes, ice floats in summer! Yes, penguins! Margo even took pictures of these rare birds. Just go by to see if they show up again this year!
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